Plagiarism + sloppy researching = Tito Sotto
(NB: I am not a fan of Senator/part-time noontime show host Vicente “Tito” Sotto III. Shortly before the May 2010 elections, I labeled him together with Senators Bong Revilla and Lito Lapid as “The Three Stooges.” Philippine Star’s Boo Chanco reprinted that post in his April 9, 2010 column.)
The list of public personalities embroiled in plagiarism scandals in different contexts has gotten longer recently. Early this year, the House Justice Committee voted to impeach Supreme Court Associate Justice Mariano del Castillo for plagiarizing excerpts from a foreign journal article parts for a decision he penned. A year before that, Palanca-award Hall of Famer Krip Yuson was found to have plagiarized another writer’s work for a magazine article.
Overseas, Hungarian president resigned last April after it was revealed that he plagiarized parts of his doctoral dissertation twenty years ago. Just this August, Time magazine managing editor and CNN TV host Fareed Zakaria was slapped a one month suspension (which has since been rescinded) for writing a column which contains a paragraph copied without any attribution from a New Yorker article. Sotto is obviously in good company.
Plagiarism in educational institutions is considered a crime. For example, professors at the University of the Philippines can refer students who are caught plagiarizing in the Student Disciplinary Tribunal for due process. If found guilty, erring students can face any of the following penalties, as stipulated in the Student’s Code – suspension, expulsion, and revocation of the degree earned (if the act is discovered after the student has already graduated).
Aside from being ridiculed publicly, plagiarizers outside the academe do not really have to worry about any legal consequence. Will an author whose work had been plagiarized go as far as filing a case against the offending party in relation to the Intellectual Property Code? In the present Congress, Rep. Winston Castelo of Quezon City proposed a bill that recommends tough sanctions against guilty individuals. Download Castelo anti-plagiarism bill here.
Last Wednesday, the Senator-comedian delivered part II of his so-called “turno en contra” on the reproductive health bill. The full text of his speech can be read in the Senate website. Two days before that, he made headlines by claiming that the 1975 death of his first son with actress Helen Gamboa was caused by a contraceptive pill (a claim immediately rebutted by former health secretary Esperanza Cabral). Aside from the loopholes in Sotto’s arguments, it was also discovered that huge chunks of his two speeches was copied word-for-word without proper attribution from FIVE BLOGGERS.
Instead of giving a public apology (which is what business magnate Manny Pangilinan did in 2010), Sotto went on the offensive. Speaking to Karen Davila on ABS-CBN News Channel’s Headstart, Sotto claimed that he should not quote American blogger Sarah Pope anymore since they are just both citing the work of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. As an added punch line, Sotto said: “Bakit ko naman iko-quote ang blogger? Blogger lang iyon.”
Blogs can be a useful source of information, and yes, as Sotto and his chief-of-staff contends, their contents are readily available in the public domain. However, information obtained from blogs should be treated with a grain of salt. The easiness by which one can put up a blog is the medium’s greatest weakness. Aside from being poorly written, many blogs out there contain trash.
Except on rare instances like when the subject of the story is the site owner, blogs are secondary sources of information. When we discuss other peoples’ research in our work, we more often than not add our own interpretation of it. Sotto would have been free from charges of plagiarism had he said in his speech something like: “According to Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, as cited by American blogger Sarah Pope…”
Nevertheless, Sotto’s aides are still guilty of sloppy researching. Why settle for a secondary source when accessing the primary reference will take you just a few minutes more of researching? This is the problem with those who rely on Wikipedia hook, line, and sinker. Rather than relying on what a Wikipedia article on a certain subjects says, researchers should check out the list of references at the bottom of the said page instead for fact-verification.
The plagiarism scandal involving Sotto has now been reported in ABC News, Washington Post, The Guardian in Great Britain, and many other foreign media outlets. This whole episode should raise awareness not just among politicians but to everyone that detecting plagiarism is as easy as perpetrating the act itself, thanks to online search engines.
In this particular case, online users not affiliated with media outlets are the ones that first proved Sotto’s plagiarism. Two factors have worked against Sotto:1) Google has made it almost effortless to detect plagiarism, and 2) The dubious nature of Sotto’s claims in his speech (ergo, that a contraceptive pill caused the death of his first child) naturally invited scrutiny into it.
What should we expect from here? Sotto is not likely to face any legal charges for what he did (hence, he had the gall to dare bloggers to sue him). Concerned parties may instead file a complaint against Sotto through the Senate Ethics Committee but it is improbable for Senators to censure one of their own.
Even more preposterous is for anyone to expect Sotto to resign his Senate seat. His term ends in 2016, and he is eligible for reelection. As it is, engaging in plagiarism in school can get you expelled, but if you’re an honorable senator, plagiarism carries no tangible consequence.
Postscript: Red Tani of the Filipino Freethinkers has published an article questioning the scientific credentials of Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, Sotto’s alleged expert source. Before you concern yourself about citing an author properly, you should first assess the credibility of that source.